Murder Drove This Woman to a Presidency and a Unifying Mission

(Bloomberg) -- When a colleague from Zuzana Caputova’s little-known political party suggested she run for president last year, she thought the idea absurd.

But then the murder of a journalist friend -- an act that launched Slovakia’s biggest protests since the fall of communism -- made it personal. The former NGO lawyer ran and won by a landslide, and now she’s hoping her victory can serve as an example for other political forces who are trying to beat back a wave of nationalism sweeping the European Union before the bloc holds parliamentary elections next month.

Murder Drove This Woman to a Presidency and a Unifying Mission

“It wasn’t a murder of some unknown journalist for me,” Caputova, 45, said in an interview in her Progressive Slovakia party’s office in Bratislava Friday. “It was clear to me from the moment that I saw the news that he was killed because of his work, because I knew what he was working on.”

The journalist was Jan Kuciak, and what he was working on was an investigation into ties between businessmen and politicians in the Smer party, which has ruled Slovakia for most of the past decade. In another coincidence, the businessman who’s been charged with ordering the hit was also Caputova’s adversary in a dispute over a planned landfill that she helped block, a role that propelled her to the political stage.

Bracketed by Hungary, Poland, where ruling parties vowing to defend the EU’s "Christian roots" are clashing with the EU over multi-cultural values and the rule of law, Slovakia’s leadership has vowed to keep the country at the bloc’s core and support deeper integration.

But even then, some mainstream politicians, including former three-time Prime Minister Robert Fico, have joined a growing regional trend of animosity against gays and Muslims, and invoking conspiracy theories like the campaign that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has launched against billionaire financier George Soros.

As Kuciak’s murder convulsed Slovakia, forcing Fico’s resignation and drawing tens of thousands of Slovaks into the street, Caputova decided she could do more good as a politician than as a lawyer. She hopes she might inspire others to fight back against extremism, as leaders including Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini try to bring together like-minded nationalists to pool their power in the European Parliament vote.

Murder Drove This Woman to a Presidency and a Unifying Mission

“The elections were won by a candidate who chose not to go the extremist path, a pro-European, liberal candidate,” said the divorced mother of two teenage daughters. “This brings me hope that the call for a change, for decency and justice, has been reflected. And I wish very much that it will be reflected in European and parliamentary elections too.”

Caputova’s victory over a field that included an anti-NATO judge and party leader who once wore Fascist-inspired uniforms and praised Slovakia’s Nazi-puppet World War II government put a damper on euroskeptic forces that are seeking to overturn the EU status quo.

Backed by the Slovak Progressive Party, which doesn’t have seats in Parliament, her campaign path included a slog from eighth place to fifth and then a breakout in national debates that ignited a surge in popularity.

After holding her own onstage with the frontrunners, and openly discussing her support of gay rights and deeper ties with the other 27 members of the EU, campaign donations surged, with almost half of the 500,000 euro ($566,000) she raised coming from people who donated 20 or 30 euros a piece, she said.

She pins her success at least partly on the idea that, while voters may be tired of the political establishment, opinion surveys show they aren’t tired of the benefits the EU brings.

“Western democracies are coping with a crisis of trust,” she said. “And this is what’s at stake: whether democratic values and institutions will continue to be doubted or whether we manage to bring back belief in ideas and values.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.